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Buying and selling influence in Washington
Who owns the Democrats?

January 19, 2007 | Page 8

NICOLE COLSON and JOE ALLEN look at how political influence is bought and sold in Washington.

"THE MOST sweeping reforms since Watergate." That was how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid described a package of "ethics reforms" passed by the House and considered in the Senate last week.

The Democrats touted the legislation as a key part of their plans for their first "100 hours" in control of Congress. They claimed it would crack down on some of the most public excesses that led to high-profile scandals in recent months.

Among other things, the new bill would create a new "Office of Public Integrity" and ban corporations that employ lobbyists from hosting lavish parties at national Democratic and Republican conventions. It would also require lobbyists to file quarterly reports on the Internet detailing how much they spend on certain campaigns to influence lawmakers. Additionally, the bill includes new travel rules to force lawmakers to pay the full rate for flying on corporate jets.

But for some Democrats, a reform bill that goes beyond these limited, and largely cosmetic, changes was troubling.

In fact, by hour 48 of the first "100 hours," Reid, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and other Senate Democrats were trying to block a rule to disclose the size, purpose and sponsor of any budget "earmarks"--the term for funds that politicians slip into complicated bills for their pet projects, often at the behest of lobbyists and corporations.

House Democrats and their top business contributors

Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the House
Occidental Petroleum: $17,000
Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers: $16,700
AT&T: $12,500

Steny Hoyer
Majority Leader
JP Morgan Chase: $28,500
Northrop Grumman: $16,600
AT&T: $12,000

Rahm Emanuel
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman
Medline Industries: $21,000
Goldman Sachs: $18,800
Avenue Capital Group: $16,000

John Murtha
"Antiwar" Democrat
University of Pennsylvania Medical Center Health System: $103,950
DRS Technologies: $51,800
Planning Systems: $36,750


The House proposal contained some large loopholes, but even so, Reid and other Senate Democrats complained that it was too broad and tried to push for a senate provision which would have exempted 95 percent or more of earmarks from disclosure. The attempt to derail the earmark provision was defeated in a close vote, but Reid promised that it could be watered down in the future.

Reid himself is no stranger to the intersection between politics, lobbyists and corporate wish fulfillment. Federal earmarks have, for example, sent millions of dollars to the University of Nevada at Reno--for which Reid's son-in-law, lawyer Steven Barringer, was a paid lobbyist. Reid's four sons have all worked as lawyers or lobbyists for special interests.

"While Reid has declared that they are barred from lobbying for their clients in his office, there is little doubt that they have taken advantage of their close proximity to a powerful senator," the Washington Post reported. So much for Democrats' pledge that this would be the "most ethical Congress ever."

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LAST NOVEMBER'S election shows that corporations are equal opportunity bribers in Washington.

Just days after the election changed control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats, the New York Times reported that money, power and influence was already shifting. As Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute commented, "Democratic lobbyists are salivating at the prospect of new, huge fees. The candidates' shakedown of lobbyists for campaign cash began literally the day after the November elections."

Corporate America was hedging its bets before the election as well. The pharmaceutical industry, for example, hired a slew of Democratic lobbyists in the run-up to November, so that if the Democrats won, they would have more influence in trying to block legislation to drive down drug prices for Medicare recipients.

In early December, even as some Democrats were promising ethics reform and an end to the "culture of corruption" in Washington, hordes of lobbyists--including a large number of former members of Congress who now make large sums as lobbyists--were attending three or four fundraisers per evening for Democrats both newly elected or facing upcoming reelection.

"There will be some changes on the margins that will be relatively short-lived," Erick Gustafson, a vice president of the Mortgage Bankers Association, told the New York Times. Trying to purge special-interest money out of Washington, Gustafson added, is "like trying to keep water out of your basement. It's a structural problem. You may find a temporary solution, but the water will find a way in. Influence is like water. Money is just a means of influence."

At heart, the new "ethics reform" proposals are mostly useless. They may ban a few of the most outrageous excesses of the Washington system, but they will do nothing limit to the millions of dollars that corporations and industries funnel to politicians of both parties each year through political action committees (PACs) and contributions of company owners, employees, friends and families.

For proof, just look at some of the top Democrats.

According to the Web site, which tracks politicians' money, during the 2005-2006 election cycle, new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) received her largest group of contributions--$17,000 in all--from PACs and individuals associated with Occidental Petroleum. Other big donations for the liberal who is supposed to "clean up the House" came from AT&T and the American Bankers Association.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer got his largest contributions--$28,500--from banking giant JP Morgan Chase. Coming in second and third on his list were defense contractors Northrop Grumman and Mantech International.

Meanwhile, Rep. John Murtha--who was backed by Pelosi and others as the "antiwar" choice for House majority leader, before losing to Hoyer--received more than $232,650 from over a dozen defense contractors during the 2005-2006 election cycle.

Many of Murtha's biggest contributors in the defense industry were actually pleased that he lost the race for majority leader--because his position as the head of the defense appropriations subcommittee means he has even more direct influence to satisfy the industry's wish list. And Murtha is supposed to be a voice for the antiwar movement in Congress?

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ALL OF this should dispel the notion, repeated during every election cycle, that the Democrats represent the interests of ordinary people. As one of two pro-corporate parties in power at any given time in Washington, the Democrats are feted by big business to ensure that corporations get the laws and policies they want.

But cutting off the flow of money from lobbyists and corporations won't solve the problem--because there are any number of ways that business exerts influence on politics in the U.S.

A significant part of government policy, for example, is set within the unelected government bureaucracy, overseen by the executive branch--where political appointments by both parties are likely to favor the very corporate executives or wealthy individuals who would otherwise lobby the government from the corporate boardrooms.

What's more, many elected politicians themselves have large personal fortunes--often made in the same industries that the legislation they write and vote for will effect. In other words, their loyalties lie not with ordinary voters, but with their class.

That's why, ultimately, the job of the politician is to say one thing to ordinary people in order to win their votes--and then ignore the wishes and interests of those people to do the bidding of Corporate America.

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